Accidentally Curated

My journal is falling apart. Partly from natural causes (it’s hardcover, and those seem to get hit harder by life), but partly from unnatural causes (Evangeline discovered she can slip her little finger under the spine and I think she’s addicted to the glorious feeling of destruction). I found this particular journal at the bookshop downtown. It’s much larger than I usually use, but I loved that it didn’t have lines. I’d gotten it in my head I could be more creative without lines, that somehow I would begin to channel my artist friends and write in circles, sideways, and doodle in beautiful colors. This of course never happened. All the blank space just invited me to write in various sizes and lean my lines at slants and cause general visual mayhem. It does not look artistic.

My very first journal opens with an entry about learning to ride my bike. I am five years old. I remember the day vividly: my father holding on to the back of the bike, giving instructions, my extreme frustration. Hardly any of this is in the entry, except for a sentence about my dad helping me learn. The other thing that isn’t there?

The fact that my little brother, a mere three-year-old, zoomed past me as I struggled to keep my balance.

He learned how to ride a bike the same day I did. I remember watching him zip along the sidewalk at daring angles, even while I could barely muster the courage to go down the slight hill. My fear of risk showed early, but it didn’t show up in my journal.

I’ve been thinking about the curated life a lot lately. Stay-at-home did many things to me — many things for me — and one of those things is that it made me more attached to my phone, to the internet, and to the world. I started most weekday mornings with NPR while I made my coffee and Evangeline’s breakfast, I moved to Facebook and Instagram when I wasn’t teaching or in a zoom meeting, and I listened to podcasts about the ills of our nation, our world.

Social media grew into something I had never experienced before. Suddenly, what we posted was barometer of our politics and our hearts. What we did not post was a measure of the same. I would hover over a post, wondering if I should like it.

What does it say about me if I like this?

Who will feel supported?

Who will feel ignored?

I got up in my head, thought far too much about how I appeared, and realized there was no way to present my full life — my full self — on a screen. My likes or comments could be misconstrued, and in turn, flatten me into a self that lacked natural human nuance. I started to question the carefully constructed profiles, not as one new to the fact that they exist, but as someone wondering if they are merely a symptom of something greater.

I am always curating my life, whether it’s online, in person, or in my own head.

What I choose to talk about, how I say it, what I highlight, all these things add up to a particular story with a particular slant.

It doesn’t stop when I close the computer or when I put down the cell phone. It doesn’t stop when I finish a telling a story that is factually true but has a twist. And it doesn’t stop when I’m all alone, thinking over my day, or maybe, my life. When I watch short videos I’ve recorded on my phone — moments captured because I knew they would be sweet — I realize how different iPhone recordings are from the camcorder home movies of my childhood: long, tedious vhs tapes with rambling conversations, absent-minded half-hours with the camcorder on the floor while child-feet wander in and out of view. Those home movies are so much closer to life than the ones I’ve been capturing in 15 or 20 seconds. They are not all of an adorable little girl filled with joy. Having my phone at the ready is amazing, and I am so grateful. Yet, it allows me to create multiple “perfect” moments without context. Likewise, my journals are carefully shaped even if it is subconscious, and my own mind seems to be shaped, too. How I tell the story of myself to myself is a strange thing to behold.

So what, you might ask? What does this matter? I am not sure. I know through counseling and the courses I took that the narrative we tell ourselves is important: it crafts our sense of self and what we tell either empowers or degrades us. I also know that what I present of myself online is incomplete, so I can only assume that what others present is incomplete, as well.

None of this is revolutionary, but as I anticipate a winter with less human interaction and more lit-up snippets to swipe past, it feels even more important to remember. People are flesh and blood, with stories and dreams and pain. Journals may brush over them, posts may be beautifully constructed, and even the voice in our heads may have a certain way of hiding the truth, but that doesn’t change the fact that nuance, gray area, and paradox seem to be at the heart of human experience.

Things I’ll Miss


I spent the last three months in a house with wind chimes. I woke up in the middle of the night to the music of them in the breeze, and there was an eeriness to it. I had to grow accustomed to its sound.

But I did grow accustomed, and soon I will miss the music of wind in glass.

I have never awaited summer with less anticipation.

[She hugs me, tucking her head in like a child, and her face is red. “It’s just hitting me now,” she sobs into my shoulder, “everyone is leaving.” I take her hand and say, “I know this is hard, I know. But you’re going to have a wonderful summer, and next year, the first day of school will be just as exciting and fun as every other first day of school. It’s just hard right now.” And I try to get her to act – to put on the performing persona she does so well in homeroom – but the pictures are proof that hiding pain only works for so long.]

Good evening, my name is Catherine Hawkins, and I am an Upper School Latin teacher.

I hand out awards one after the other. I try to speak slowly because I rush when I want to be done. I pass out two Perfect Scores on the National Latin Exam; I clap for a row of students so long it has to loop around the stage.

I jump into a class photograph — right in the middle — but I do not tear up once the entire evening.

Someone has to hold it together.

And we all know Jim wouldn’t be able to [cough, cough, no-emotion-man].

I have never awaited summer with less anticipation.

[“Magistra, I will spit out my gum every morning at my new school in honor of you.”]

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I packed up my room. It is hideous and you would never imagine such learning and fun and difficult conversations happened here.

I am not even leaving forever — I’ll be back in September — but there is something about this year that was precious to me. Too dear, maybe, in a way that could not be sustained.

Good thing I have a good memory. Good thing they have left me better than the way they found me.

~     ~     ~

The past few months, I have questioned my work in a way I have never done before.

Is it valuable?
Is it challenging enough?
Is it the easy way out?
Is it glorifying to God?

This past week, tear-stained cheeks, awkward middle school goodbyes, and a gift I will proudly hang on my wall prove that this is valuable work I do.

[“Catherine, he’s been working all day to make you something special.”]

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I grew accustomed to saying the same few names over and over in class: Refocus. You need your textbook, not your workbook. Sit down. That’s hilarious, but NEVER DO IT AGAIN.

I grew accustomed to these faces, these voices, these antics that — on my more tired days — were not quite as endearing as they’d hoped.

I grew accustomed to being their Magistra, but now, as many of them move on, I will forever be their Swagistra.

[Photo: Rie H]

Dating Advice from an 8-Year-Old

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[This is what happens when you leave your phone unattended and fail to put a passcode on it…]

There’s this thing about kids that I’ve realized, and it’s that they hurt your feelings without meaning to. Adults usually mean to. Or at least, they mean to more often. I’ve got a handful of non-hateful mean things kids have said to me over the years, and with my elephant memory for tiny hurts, I’ll probably always have them tucked away somewhere.

When I was a babysitter in high school, a little girl said to me:

“Where are you from?”

“I’m from town. I grew up here,” I said.

“Huh. I thought you were from somewhere else. Your eyebrows don’t match your hair.”

And she spun around and ran to the swing set.

Now, at the tender and hideous age of 16, I was pretty bummed by her astute observation. It’s true: my eyebrows indeed do not match my hair. I dye neither, but somehow, God didn’t get the memo that if you’re from Massachusetts, your hair and eyebrows should be the same color. Maybe if I were from England or Colombia, but not Massachusetts.

And I thought about this for days.

I went home and told my family, who laughed.

I thought about dying my hair brown. Then I thought about bleaching my eyebrows, but the upkeep seemed horrendous.

Then, slowly and finally, I accepted the fact that my eyebrows are dark and my hair is light and I look like a foreigner.

~     ~     ~

These days, I babysit for a different family, and a different little girl has made the same observation. She said it quizzically, as though I were a specimen to be studied, and it seems often that I am; there is a mixture of wonder and confusion on her face when she looks at me, but she doesn’t always hold back her less-than-stellar thoughts.

“Why don’t you brush your hair more?”

“Why can’t I paint your nails?”

“Why don’t you curl your hair?”

“Why do you always drink water instead of soda?”

“Why don’t you have a boyfriend?”

It was that last one I always tried to answer in a way that a seven-year-old would understand.

“I just haven’t met anyone I liked enough.”

[Sort of true, sort of not.]

“Seriously?” she asked skeptically, her mouth hanging open a little in disgust.

“Yeah, and I mean, it takes a lot of time. I have to really like the person if I’m gonna give that much time and energy to him.”

[Definitely true.]

I could tell she still didn’t understand because she looked at me sideways before demanding I tell her another story about when I was little.

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Two weeks ago, I was babysitting in the winter, which is rare. This same girl who thought everyone over the age of 15 must have a boyfriend was sitting across from me in a cozy restaurant. Her bangs had grown and were tucked behind her ear, more teeth had fallen out, but she was, overall, very much the same precocious strawberry blonde.

“Tell me a story,” she said as our buffalo chicken wings and fried pickles arrived. “I’ll give you a category.”

Her category was “something new that happened,” and I paused.

Should I tell her?

What would she think?

It might be opening a slew of questions I’m not interested in answering.

“Well, you know, actually,” (and it took forever to finally say), “I have a boyfriend now.”

I swear she stopped chewing her fried pickle and stared at me.

She blinked.

She did not smile.

“Remember that day I got a phone call? The last day of summer when we were at Canobie Lake Park?”


“That was him. He asked me out on a date, and now we’re dating.”

She didn’t ask a question.

This was not at all how I imagined she’d react. I’d pictured excitement and interested questions and “when can we meet him?!”

I, in my awkwardness, said,

“I think you’ll really like him. He likes hiking.”

He likes hiking?! That’s all you got?!

And then she steered the conversation in a totally different direction, asking for another story, one that involved a lot more animation and hand gestures. I started to tell it, surprised by her lack of interest. I don’t remember what the story was about or if it were even funny, but I know I was pretty engaged in telling it. She was enjoying it, her green-blue eyes big and her focus not on the fried pickles anymore.

I was just about to get to the good part — buffalo chicken wing brandished high in a dramatic moment — when she cocked her head like she does when she’s about to say something slightly critical.

[Remember: this girl is eight years old.]

“Catherine,” she said, “whatever you do, don’t let your boyfriend see you eat chicken wings.”


And she reached over and took her own chicken wing and dipped it gingerly in blue cheese dressing.

I laughed because what else can you do? and I said,

“Guess what? He’s an even messier eater than I am. And that’s so not fair! You can’t ask for a story mid-chicken-wing!”

“I’m just sayin’,” and she proceeded to nibble.

My latest in child-critiques. This one I’m not too upset about.


[Look, no buffalo sauce on my chin.]

The Story of Hands


I’ve always been fascinated by hands.

Sitting on Grampa’s lap in the big recliner, I remember the feel of the bump along the edge of his thumb. He’d been in a boating accident years before, and the bones never smoothed after the surgery to reattach his thumb.

Watching Great-Grammie Shaw knit in the sunny den, her veined hands flashing the metal needles. You’d never have guessed she didn’t have full-use of her right hand — that a car accident in 1927 left her to relearn how to write, how to knit, and how to sew. The only thing she couldn’t re-learn was how to type. It scared me a little, the shape of that hand, but when I grew older, I marveled at how she held her coffee mug every morning, the tilt of it towards her mouth right up to a month ago.

My Dad’s hands in church as he held the Bible, the fine blond hairs of his fingers, the shortness of his nails. How those square hands held me and gardened and played card games. How the freckles came out in the summertime.

And Mama’s hands, small and brown from the sun. Her wedding ring stopped fitting me when I was a teenager, and I thought my hands must be huge. But it wasn’t that, really, it was the smallness of Mama’s, like her thin wrists.

That time I was driving along 1-A and realized my hands would die. That I looked at them and finally saw how deeply fear ran in me.

[“You know what I remember, Catherine? Having a sleepover when we were like fourteen, and we were all talking about boys. And you said he had to have good hands, that you always looked at his hands. I’ll never forget it.”]

Sitting across from a man and thinking No, no, because his hands looked like a woman’s and he was eating salad. Because his nails were too long and his laugh was too high and all I could think was no.

Hands tell stories without words. Like a timeline, they trace the beginnings of life all the way to the grind of your day. The scar on my right hand from that broken mug my senior year of college, how it bled and bled and seemed to stand for more than just my clumsiness. The freckle on my thumb that’s only recently appeared — proof of sun and age. The writer’s bump I got in second grade writing an essay on keeping chickens (in cursive). The way the veins in my left wrist protrude just a little bit more than my right — a reminder of blockage and breaking free.

Even now, as I think of different people in my life, I see their hands. The half-moons of my aunt’s nails, the wedding ring my Gramma has never taken off, the slope of his trimmed nails and the way my hand feels small inside his.

Who knows why hands are what I see? I wonder what it is other people see: ears? noses? eyes? There’s so much character in a hand, though, the kind of character that makes you feel like you know a person long before you do. I try not to read bodies, but it’s hard, ignoring the reality of truth right in front of you.

Dubus on Writing

In the cozy light of candles, I picked up “Poets and Writers” hoping to be inspired. It’s been too long since I wrote anything of consequence (and by consequence, I guess I mean fiction, which is a lie of its own kind).

I read of Elizabeth Gilbert’s success after Eat, Pray, Love, and who could imagine such response to a memoir? But it wasn’t there I found it.

It was later, reading about Andre Dubus, III, wondering who this Massachusetts-writer was, the title of his first great success – House of Sand and Fog – like an old friend, even though I’ve never read it. Teaching English at U-Mass Amherst, struggling with who the world thinks he is and who he actually is. And then he says it,

We can’t choose what haunts us.

Six words later and relief washes over me.

I’ve been trying to escape these hauntings my whole life. Over and over in college, my fiction felt stunted and half-baked, the starts of goodness, maybe, but the shortened ends of a truth not fully told. And my greatest fear in fiction? Dani Shapiro said it in her post on writing and being, “Was my subject myself?”

That’s why nonfiction has felt like such a defeat. I write nonfiction because I can’t get myself out of my fiction, so what is left to do? The summer I was twenty-one, I interned at a large publishing house in Boston, and once in a while I got to have lunch with employees gracious enough to interact with my eagerness. I picked their brains, my notebook covered in their scrawling answers. At one of these luncheons, I spoke with a recently published writer. She wrote a YA novel, we shared the same name, and I felt a natural kinship with her for these reasons.

“But, I can’t get myself out of my writing,” I said, hoping she’d have some magic cure.

“You can’t worry about that,” she said brusquely. “You’ll never do it.”

And she’s right.

We can’t choose what haunts us.

I write poems that surprise me. I write essays that shock me. Until I stop viewing nonfiction as second-class, somehow less of an art form, I will never be able to create what needs creating. I root for my friends whose plot lines fill their brains and seem to write themselves; these friends are haunted by characters, stories they’ve never lived, ideas and questions that map themselves out in imagination. From this vantage point, I will never be that writer. This is not to say I’ll never write a lick of fiction again. It is to say that my expectations of myself are changing.

I can’t choose what haunts me, but I can write the hauntings. I guess that’s all I can do.

What Do You Want Your Story to Be?

I was addicted to stories. I devoured them, one after the other, bending and folding paperbacks with abandon, dog-earring corners, underlining words that were beautiful, words that were true. Young heroines like Emily of New Moon and Betsy from the Betsy-Tacy books taught me how to be spunky and creative. It wasn’t long before I was weaving plots for hours on a 1995 Gateway computer in my bedroom.

I remember wanting other kinds of stories, too. Sitting at the dinner table long after all the food was eaten, we’d beg my father to tell us stories about his childhood. (My mother’d always shake her head when we asked her, saying she didn’t have any stories. I still find this hard to believe.) Dad’s stories often involved fish, foolish things my dad had tried because he was “curious.” The time when he was three and took the goldfish out of the tank “to look at it” is a classic; I can still picture the poor thing gasping on the living room carpet, the victim of an over-active mind and not quite enough supervision.

My mother’s friend from college told us good stories, too. I remember most the one of her throwing cherry tomatoes over the railing and hitting guests. Oh, and the one with blood-engorged ticks (who could erase that memory?!). And the one when the dog ate rising bread dough and its stomach rose with it, waddling proof that dogs do not know what’s best for them.

I grew up on stories.

The voices brought people alive, my great-great-grandfather and his stern Maine-ness. My grandpa whom I’d known but only awhile, breathed again when we talked about his stories of growing up on a fox farm. As I listened and began to craft stories of my own, I realized that one day, I too would have stories to tell my children.


What do you want your story to be?

[He asks from the pulpit, and I think, I’ve been thinking about this all along.]

When you write your story, think about how it affects others.

When you write your story, make it one you want to tell.

This is the one sentence that rang through the sanctuary, hanging in the air, making the skin on my arms prickle with its truth.

Even though I’ve discovered the repercussions of writing a life before living it, here I was reminded that sometimes we need to shape the life we’re given. Yes, things happen beyond our control, and yes, sometimes we ache from those uncontrollables. But more often than not, we have choice.

I get to choose what story I’m living, and I get to make it one I want to tell.

~     ~     ~

I will tell about early Christmas mornings, all four of us huddling in one bedroom because we wanted to share it that one day. The lights from the tree bouncing off the mirror in the hallway. About waiting for the cousins to come and longing for the day to never end. They will ask where our traditions come from, and I’ll smile and tell them the story.

I will tell about riding horses in the sun and feeling powerful.

I will tell about discovering Laura Ingalls for the first time, about raising chickens and gardening, the plethora of projects done in the name of sustainable living.

I will tell about late-night summer man-hunts when hormones ran rampant and we didn’t know what to do with them so we ran, too.

I will tell about choosing a college and not being sure but doing it anyway. I will tell about loneliness and fear, about trying hard and singing hard and learning. They will ask about friends and making friends, about trying to love. I’ll tell about walks around the pond where so much got twisted around and sorted out.

I will tell about graduating and reeling in my own mind. About disappointments and mis-steps that, while not destroying definitely left me feeling useless. About dark months in winter when I was learning to trust and hating every minute of it.


And my most recent stories? They’ll include the discovery of joy. The summer we all lived at home again and spent our evenings on the back porch. Riding with the top down in my car, fearing the day when I’ll have to say goodbye to this lovely little bug that’s taken me so many places. Finding a church that allows me to be the silly, too-immature-for-small-group girl I sometimes am. Growing in friendships that have challenged me, shaped me, and made me think deeper than I ever could have thought on my own.

My story isn’t done, but I finally feel like I am choosing it.

I Write Life

When I was a little girl, I was certain I would love only one man. In fact, I was pretty sure that we would grow up together, that he’d be a boy down the street and that suddenly one glorious summer evening we would both realize we’d loved each other all along. He’d touch my cheek (ala, Gilbert Blythe) and whisper some friendly tease as we began to imagine our future.

I thought this way for years, really, as a young girl reading Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. It’s possible I even wrote an 83-page novella (by hand) about a girl name Willa realizing the same thing about her friend Peter as they splashed each other in the secret pond in the woods. (If that isn’t some not-so-secret sexual tension in my 12-year-old writing, I don’t know what would be.)

And then one day, it occurred to me:

If I say I want to grow up with the boy I marry, that means I have to KNOW HIM NOW.

And I looked around at the boys I knew, and though I loved them dearly, I quickly revised my dream.

Never mind. I think it’s much better to meet later, in college, to be more grown up. Never mind. I’ll wait.

So I grew up, still thinking I would love one man and one man forever.


The summer after my junior year, I interned at a publishing house in Boston. One of my tasks was to edit the text in their new database. I was responsible for fixing bizarre spaces in the mid dle of w ord s and checking line breaks, and in the process of doing this, I read some strange and awful and thought-provoking books. One was a memoir by a woman whose name I don’t remember. It had a light blue cover and it was mostly filled with a string of lovers, each one daring and handsome, social and introverted, crazy and calm. The image I have most strongly from her book is a story of her and one of her lovers (she was in her late fifties by now, I think) and they are in one of their apartments. It’s been a day of lounging around, eating and love making, and I don’t know what happened exactly, but I remember distinctly feeling a sense of her happiness. That she viewed this doomed relationship with love and tenderness. She still thought of this man fondly, despite their different paths and the pain they both felt.

I was twenty-one years old.

So I sat in my gray cubicle and in my self-righteousness, I thought: I don’t know how this is possible. She writes about these men – these men she didn’t stay with who broke her heart or who had their hearts broken by her – and she is smiling. I can feel it in her words. She is smiling at the memories with them, even as she realizes the relationships are dead.

I couldn’t understand her ability to find joy in something that was broken, and I couldn’t understand that she had loved more than one man.


It’s three years later, and I can say with full honesty that I have loved more than one man. I might even say I’ve loved a small handful, none of them perfectly, some of them with false-starts of returned love, some of them even unwittingly requested by the receiver. If it’s taught me anything – this loving – it’s that each time is different and each time is imperfect and each time

I didn’t know how to end that sentence. Mostly because I’m not entirely sure what loving has taught me. I’d like to think that each time I get a little better at it, at both feeling it and showing it. At both being myself and enjoying someone else.

I’m glad, at twenty-four, that I can say I’ve loved more than one man. Not because it isn’t beautiful to be given that gift, but because I needed to break out of the idea of myself. I needed to see what it meant to live life instead of write it. I like to think that when I’m sixty-five, I will be telling my stories of love and un-love with a smile on my face. Because even though these men were not meant for me nor I for them, there is a reason one of us was drawn to the other, and that reason is worth telling.

I’m a What?!

The best compliment you could’ve given to my 16-year-old-self was by far:

“You’re normal!”

Maybe this goes for most teenagers, but I think the word “normal” holds even more power for those among us who were (whisper this) homeschooled. As one of those people, at the ripe old age of sixteen, I could spot them coming a mile away. There was something about the way homeschooled kids dressed that told you. Maybe it had a little bit to do with how they interacted with adults. That’s a pretty good give-away, too.

But I won’t go so far as to say that it is the actual homeschooling that makes people different – sure, it has its ability to shape us, as all experiences do – but I think its the kind of people who choose to homeschool that has even more to do with that difference.

What was I most afraid of growing up? Being different, sure. But even above that, I was afraid of being weak, afraid of seeming like I couldn’t handle life.

That was one of the biggies.

[Oh, also the part about being unlovable. Whew. That took a lot of my brain time in high school.]

So, in an effort to seem like I had it together, I assumed a posture of higher-than-thou. Everything was a competition. Everything mattered. And I wasn’t about to let my cards show. I held people at a good distance, because opening up and letting people know me looked a little too much like weakness, and I wanted to win!

You know that friend who will always be special because he or she spoke truth into something you didn’t even know needed it?

I have one of those friends. It was my sophomore year of college, and I was fairly happy. I liked my classes, I loved singing, and I had recently learned the art of witty banter with the opposite sex (witty banter, for me, can sometimes turn into slightly mean teasing – I was working on the logistics).

I don’t remember what started the conversation, but I do remember what he said to me in the car:

It’s not like you really let people get to know you.

I had no idea what he was talking about. I dropped him off and parked the car and thought about it all day until I couldn’t take it anymore and called him and made him meet me at the dining hall and sit across from me, look me in the eye, and say (and I quote):

Catherine, I don’t know how to say this, but sometimes you come across as a b****.

I blinked hard. He looked down at his very white hands and seemed sad.

But he was right. In all my years of trying to be strong, I had crafted for myself a woman who didn’t put up with bullshit (I usually try not to swear, but please, allow me this apt phrasing). I didn’t put up with it, and I didn’t care for people who did. I cloaked myself in smart words and flashing eyes, and, like he said, sometimes I came across as a b****.

Back in my dorm on the hill, I didn’t know how to change this fact. I hadn’t even known it until that evening, and I looked at the past few years and felt shame. Shame at my pride. Shame at my ignorance. Shame at how I had treated people.

I also felt gratitude. Even in the midst of this, this man had chosen me as a friend, and had looked me in the eye and told me the truth.

Now, perhaps, some would say that I have gone too far in the other direction. I’m pretty open about my struggles, about what I’m thinking and feeling (sorry, guys!). It can be overwhelming sometimes, I know, because since that night it is as though my emotions have (blossomed? exploded? what is the right word?!), and that can be a lot for those of us who tend to be more cerebral.

It can be tough, but I would choose this way of being over the former any day.

I praise God for friends who know when to speak and when not to speak. I praise God for speaking through them. And I can tell you that the pain you feel when you listen can’t compare with the joy of growth afterwards.

A Past Worth Preserving


I wrote my great-grandmother’s “biography” when I was nine or ten. It was terrible. It all started because I had a magazine, and I wanted to interview her for the “Premier Edition.” (My aunt had worked for a magazine for a few years after college, hence the language.) I took a yellow legal pad and a blue pen and sat across from my great-grandmother in my dead great-grandfather’s blue recliner. The sun shone hot through the bay window, and I remember feeling pretty grown-up, asking all these questions. I had a legal pad, after all.

I asked her about growing up in the early 1900s. I asked her what she did for fun, what school was like, what her home was like filled with six people. I asked her how her hometown was different during WWI than it is now, and I asked her what she liked to eat and how she met my great-grandfather. I wrote furiously because I didn’t want to miss a word and the thought of writing shorthand never occurred to me. My great-grandmother’s handwriting was always beautiful – smooth and looped – and mine was hurried and uneven and merely served a purpose.

I think I was in awe of the sheer amount of time sitting across from me. Born in 1909, my grandmother had seen both World Wars and all the other atrocities and beauties of the 20th century. I crafted the interview with all the intensity of a ten-year-old who wanted desperately to preserve the past, and a copy of that old magazine is tucked away in my great-grandfather’s briefcase where I keep all my old creations.

I’d forgotten about the interview and the resulting mini-biography until this morning. For Christmas my mother bought me a book by Donald Hall, the former poet laureate: String Too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm. It’s a thin paperback, first published in 1961, and it has a poet’s carefulness of language and transcendent moments.


Hall writes of his grandparents’ farm and the summers he spent living and working alongside them. He writes of moments in the hayfield when all he ever wanted was to hay, and of a time when he was so exhausted and thirsty from picking blueberries that he couldn’t imagine his 70-year-old grandfather was still plugging away, stripping the low-growing bushes of their tiny wild berries. The love Hall felt for his grandparents and the place is so palpable, it made me fall in love with them myself. His poetry was born in the fields of New Hampshire.

Hall says he had a “need to conserve the past,” and I know that is what I felt sitting across from my great-grandmother, desperate to grasp this other life that I would never know.

It seemed abominable to me that I had only one life to live, and that the realities and hardships and loveliness of this woman’s life would be lost to nothingness when she died.

I don’t think she herself felt such a desperation.

During college, Hall found himself longing for his friends during the lonely summers in New Hampshire. He doesn’t hide the horrible guilt he felt, and I knew exactly what he was talking about; the deep love you have, yet the desire for something stirring inside you.

The book ends as I knew it would. His grandfather dies when Hall is 24, and even though that is the way of every life, I cried. I haven’t cried at a book in a good long time, and I was surprised and glad that no one was around. How can you explain crying over someone else’s dead grandfather? Someone who’d lived a good life and worked hard and loved well?

I think I was struck as much by the beauty as the sadness. There was such strength in the life of this man I will never know, this grandfather who had shaped a young boy more than he realized. I saw the sweet progression of life, the stories of family and friends and small-town myths all woven together. It was not mysterious. It was not filled with world-travel or adventures or death-defying heroic acts. The adventures and heroic acts were contained in the fields of generations of farmers, and they breathe in the pages of this book.

My great-grandmother’s life is much the same way. She grew up and lived in the same city until she was 95 and moved in with my aunt and uncle. She didn’t go to college, but she loved words and music and games. She had four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and she made lemon meringue pie and cole slaw for every family dinner. She went to Niagara Falls and took pictures and she attended the same church her entire life.

What is this desire to preserve the past? In some ways it feels like an avoidance. I am constantly living in the past or the future, my eyes set both forwards and back. I hold on to my great-grandmother and my grandmother’s words tightly, as if they hold some secret to a better time. How do I get that? I wonder. How do I get stories? How do I live? I don’t think either one of these women ever really thought about that; living was what you did, not what you thought about.

I am striving to live some huge life, some remarkable, adventurous life. I’m wondering if I have my priorities straight. Maybe a past worth preserving doesn’t have to be of legendary proportions; maybe it has to be true.

Summer 2008 016The summer after I graduated high school – all six of us kids on our yearly vacation.

Advent and Narrative

My Advent-morning ritual is elongated today. All the fifth and sixth graders are off on various field trips, leaving me with only my high school class before noon. The coffee’s steeping (brewing? I know what we say for tea, but what does coffee do in a French press?!), candles are burning, and the tree is lit. Attempting for a moment to slow down and think.


A friend told me the other day that she’s afraid of blogging because of how personal it is. She’s written a few posts (to which I am privy), but she said she felt hindered because she didn’t want people to know things about her. [this is where I’m tempted to post a link to her blog, but I’d rather not die today]

She’s right, though. There is this strange reality that I haven’t really dealt with yet: personal histories being read by strangers.

Growing up, I was intensely private. I remember having a crush on one of the boys in town, and I didn’t tell a living soul. My sister begged me, pleaded, said she didn’t understand why I didn’t trust her. But there was no way I was letting anyone in on that secret part of my life. I thought it was foolish to open up to people, because you never knew when they would use that information against you. (I guess I was a cynical nine-year-old…)


Things have changed in the last decade or more. I think college had a lot to do with it. Living in such close proximity with peers, getting to know the ins and outs of roommates, friends, classmates, sometimes to the point of really not wanting to know ANYMORE. (I’m just kidding, guys. Bring me your woes, your fears, your strivings!) I came in as a freshman with no desire to open myself to the possibilities.

I was scared.

But I’ve realized that there isn’t much more to life than opening up to the possibilities. Isn’t that what God asks of us? Open yourself up to the possibility of being loved. Open yourself up to knowing Me. Open yourself up to the fullness of My blessings.

~     ~     ~

The best literature is honest. The best writing is the writing that gets at the core of it. I’ve read a lot of good writing, but the stuff that sticks in my mind, the words that have burned themselves into my consciousness, are the ones that spoke from the writer’s soul. That is what connects us.

I’m reading Wild, a memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The author, Cheryl Strayed, gets lost and attempts to find out where she is by using the graphs and maps and calculations in her guidebook. It doesn’t work. She’s not very mathematical: “I see things in narrative,” she says.

While I certainly value math and science, and even enjoy them sometimes, I come from Strayed’s view. I see things in narrative. I look back on the things that have happened in my life, the people I have known, and I see stories.

Now, blogging may not be for my friend. It does require a certain openness, a certain letting-go of oneself. I told her there were many ways to blog – to write. If she’d rather stick with the less-personal, she should!

But the stories are what connect us. They are what show us the brokenness in each other, but they are also what deliver salvation.

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah 9:6